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How best to protect Syrians from war crimes

With the civil war deepening, world powers need to pile pressure on the regime's backer, Iran, while planning responsible humanitarian intervention

In 2005 the United Nations made a highly significant proclamation with its "responsibility to protect" doctrine, which permits military intervention in a conflict on humanitarian grounds.

The doctrine was later ratified by the UN Security Council. It permits the UNSC to authorise collective action if member states fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. Such intervention can only occur with the agreement of all five permanent members of the UNSC.

Sometimes this agreement comes easily, an example being the recent decision to send peacekeeping troops to protect civilians in the Central African Republic. It was easy because the UNSC's "permanent five" are not squabbling over the future and resources of a country that holds little strategic interest.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Syria, which is far more geopolitically divisive.

Russia and China have consistently sided with the government of President Bashir al-Assad, quashing any measures that would curb Syria's military advantage over the rebels, like the no-fly zone that was employed in Libya.

They found common ground with Western countries over a resolution that required Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons under the watchful eye of UN inspectors. Opponents of the al-Assad regime said the resolution did nothing but give the government and its forces time to regroup.

For some time now, American policy in Syria has been to provide limited aid to the rebels while at the same time calling for negotiation. To be fair, there is no good option for solving this civil war. This just happened to be the least-bad option.

Many are calling for a more assertive policy, arguing that the sooner Assad falls, the sooner the violence will end. Refugees would be able to return home and the humanitarian crisis brought to an end.

Others say an all-out attempt to remove Assad could lead to a protracted war with even bloodier results. Moreover, they say, it could leave the Islamists with the upper hand.

Strengthening the hand of Syria's Islamist factions would greatly upset Iran, leading perhaps to a negative impact on ongoing talks over Tehran's nuclear programme.

The idea of talking to Iran about Syria should not be ruled out. If the US can sit down and horse-trade with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, then it should certainly be able to include in the talks Syria, a bloody regime backed by Tehran.

Moreover, the road to peace in Lebanon could also pass through Tehran, because the largest and most coherent military faction in the country is Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran.

This is not to say that the US and Western powers should rule out humanitarian intervention on behalf of the people of Syria. The UN issued a statement recently that suggested war crimes were being committed in the country and indicated that it held the highest levels of government responsible.

Naturally, this has given fresh impetus to those advocating a more assertive approach. But humanitarian intervention needs to be carried out with the broadest possible support under stated aims. Previous experience should have taught us the disastrous repercussions that come from gung-ho military intervention in the Middle East.


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